How to build a great small business company culture

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Think getting the real work done is more important than making your business a better place to work? Think again.

In the tech world, great company culture has become synonymous with free snacks, ping-pong tables, nap rooms and Pilates classes.

But while these fancy perks can create a fun vibe and alleviate work-related stress, company culture is much more than that. It’s how people behave and communicate, it’s what they believe and value, how they celebrate successes and how they deal with problems.

“In simple terms, culture means ‘the way things are done around here’,” says Lynn Scott, leadership coach and author of The Effortless Leader Revolution. 

Get your business culture right and (as numerous studies have shown) your staff will be happy, more productive and more loyal. “Get it wrong and you could end up with a toxic work environment and high staff turnover,” says Susy Roberts, executive coach and founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts.

The associated recruitment costs are much more than you probably realise – the total cost to replace someone who has left because they were unhappy can be as high as 180% of an employee’s salary.

Not just for large corporates

Think company culture is something that only the Big 4 should worry about? Wrong!

“It’s just as important to instil a positive culture in a small business, even if you only have a team of one,” says Roberts. In fact, it could be more important. Roberts says: “A smaller group of colleagues works in closer proximity with, and relies more heavily on, their co-workers than staff in a larger organisation.”

Katie Stevens MAAT, is founder and director of Greyhound Accountancy in Bristol. She is currently recruiting for her first member of staff.

She says: “Without the kudos of larger companies, small businesses rely on their employees to be the reason their clients choose to work with them, too.” You will struggle to grow without happy, engaged and inspired staff.

Lay down the ground rules

Roberts says, ensuring that your staff are happy and motivated doesn’t need to be driven by policies and procedures, or involve a complicated system of performance reviews and costly staff engagement surveys. “Transparency, honesty and positive reinforcement don’t cost a thing. You simply need to recognise that your people should be listened to and valued so that they perform at their best.”

But first decide how you want “things to be done around here”.

Scott says: “Be clear about what you want. Saying ‘we need to communicate effectively’ or ‘we need to be innovative’ is meaningless. Be specific: do you want people to talk more and email less? Speak to clients more frequently so that they can identify extra services you could offer them? Don’t leave your team guessing.”

Also, lead by example. “It’s no good saying you want people to do one thing if you then do another,” says Scott. So, do you need to get better at communicating and interacting with others? Do you treat employees the same way you want them to treat one another?

Hire according to these values, too, not just according to aptitude.

Scott says: “Ensure the people have the right interpersonal skills and that they are a good ‘fit’. A rude genius is not going to help your business grow.”

Get your business culture right and your staff will be happy, more productive and more loyal

What people want

Paul Barnes, managing director of My Accountancy Place, says employees need to feel they can bring their own personality to work. “Our brand, office space, the personalities of the people we employ and even the way we dress matches that of our clients – digital creative agencies. I don’t want our team to have to put on an act when they are with clients. I want them to be themselves in the office and in our clients’ studios, too.”

Stevens recognises that opportunities for personal and professional development are important. She says: “I’m keen that Greyhound provides a springboard for anyone I employ, equipping them with a mixture of skills, qualifications and real-world business experience. This way we can achieve exceptional things as a company and they can add real value to Bristol’s business scene.”

Having worked in some high-pressure, fast-paced environments, Stevens is also keen to support the wellbeing of her staff. “I offer an element of flexibility in the working week and encourage participation in interests outside of work.

You need your family, friends and the great outdoors when you’ve just spent a large proportion of your day wrapped up in numbers in front of a screen.”

Value opinions

Employees want their bosses to be open to suggestions and feedback, good or bad. Roberts says: “They feel valued when they know their opinions matter and that they are free to air them without fear of recrimination.” Such inclusion is good for any business, but particularly so for a small one. “In small teams people often take on multiple roles so their varied views can lead to better, more creative solutions,” Roberts points out.

They don’t want to be castigated for making mistakes. “They should be held accountable, but also given the right feedback and support to learn from them, for their own personal development and for the benefit of the business,” says Roberts.


Last but not least, your staff want to feel appreciated.

Scott says: “No-one likes to feel as if they are just a commodity or a work-horse, so take time out to celebrate their achievements. A simple and heartfelt thank-you for doing a really good job is also very powerful.”

Scott also suggests that you ask your staff these three key questions every quarter:

What is working well in the business? What could we do better? What would you like me to do more (or less) of to help you and the business be even more successful?

“Then listen to the answers – the worst bosses are the ones who don’t listen,” she says.

Iwona Tokc-Wilde is a business journalist.

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